“And Still We Are Not Saved?”

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19 mins read

A Season Yet to Come

Author Rev. Kevin Johnson
Author Rev. Kevin Johnson

Summer is coming…and still we are not saved.

Two scripture lessons frame what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church today: Psalm 104:27-34, 35b and John 20:19-23.

First there’s Psalm 104, a psalm which is subtitled ‘A Hymn to God the Creator’. It begins with the portrayal of God the Creator, the One who “stretched out the heavens like a tent” and “set the earth on its foundations” and concludes by declaring God as the Provider, the Sustainer of all God’s creatures. It reaches a crescendo in verse 24, when the psalmist cries out “O Lord! How wonderful are you works!”

How wonderful, indeed…

“…The earth is full of your creatures…yonder is the sea, great and wide… creeping things innumerable there… These all look to you to give them food in due season…”

“…These all look to you to give them food in due season…”

Today, my friends, is Pentecost Sunday, a special day in the life of disciples of Jesus. It’s a day which, according to the Liturgical Calendar, marks the beginning of a new season; we now go from the Season of Easter into the Season of Pentecost.

It is a day when the lectionary readings call to our remembrance the fulfillment of God’s promise to Jesus’ followers: “While staying with them, He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father…”

That promise, we know, was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which had been promised to the disciples way back in the day of John the Baptist, when John told those gathered at the Jordon, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!”

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The people of Flint are not saved from poisoned water; the teachers in Detroit are not saved from the legislature in Lansing; we are not saved from gun violence; our youth are not saved from human trafficking and child prostitution; we are not saved from environmental pollution, inadequate public transportation, or gentrification.
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In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter two, Luke narrates what happened on that fateful day of Pentecost when the Spirit descended upon the believers. It was nothing short of a spectacle, with tongues of fire and disciples speaking in every language under the sun – a scene so unbelievable that some in the crowd thought the disciples were drunk! Luke tells a story of Peter preaching and interpreting the Scriptures so that 3,000 people were baptized on that day! Talk about an altar call!

photo of a candleBut for the purpose of our hearing today, the Spirit calls to our remembrance the writings of John. John’s version of the Pentecost story is much quieter; there’s much less fanfare. No, as John tells it, this baptism of the Holy Spirit takes place in a locked room, where Jesus’ disciples are hiding for fear of persecution. Into this space of fear, the Resurrected Christ appears to his disciples and tells them again and again, “Peace be with you.” He tells them that as the Father has sent him, so he now sends them. And in place of tongues of fire and miraculous preaching in many languages, Jesus’ disciples receive the Holy Spirit as he breathes on them – the simple miracle of the breath of their Lord.

Two stories, one Spirit. And yet one thing for sure. Notwithstanding whose account we consider, whether we look for flames or a gentle breath, much has happened since that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem centuries ago.

Many seasons have come…and gone. Seasons of hope…and of disappointment. Seasons of grace…and of grief.

To quote from the ancient prophet Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

The Season at Hand

Down through the years, prophets have marked the seasons on any number of occasions.

The prophet Gil Scott-Heron delivered an oracle against the backdrop of one such season. He said of this country, “And now it is winter; winter in America… And all of our heroes have been killed or betrayed. Yeah, but the people know its winter, winter in America; and ain’t nobody fighting cause, nobody knows what to save…save your soul, Lord knows, from winter in America…”

“…summer is passed and we are not saved…”

“…winter in America and ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to save… save your soul…”

To paraphrase the words of Jesus, “What does it profit a nation to gain the whole world only to forfeit its very soul?”

These are daunting times in our nation today. America finds herself in an election season right now. And every time you turn on the TV there’s fighting – a whole lot of fighting –going on between the candidates. And still, as the prophet Jeremiah said, “We are not saved.”

The people of Flint are not saved from poisoned water; the teachers in Detroit are not saved from the legislature in Lansing; we are not saved from gun violence; our youth are not saved from human trafficking and child prostitution; we are not saved from environmental pollution, inadequate public transportation, or gentrification.

The prophets of Motown saw such a season, and they said it like this:

“People moving out, people moving in,
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide…
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
Vote for me and I’ll set you free
Rap on brother, rap on…
The sell of pills are at an all time high…
Young folks walking around with their heads in the sky…
Cities ablaze in the summer time –
And oh, the beat goes on…” (Temptations – Ball of Confusion)

Yes, the beat goes on… “…and we are not saved…”

To tell the truth, global warming has it so now that it feels like winter in the summer and springtime in the fall! Got it so that prophets can’t tell winter in America from a summer that is passed. But one thing we can tell: we are not saved

Do you think Hillary Clinton will save us from this season?
Do you think Bernie Sanders will save us from this season?
Do you think Donald Trump will save us from this season?

I’m all for the democratic system in America, and I make it a point to vote whenever the polls are open. But I don’t put my trust in man or woman. I put my trust in God.

And what does the psalmist say about God? That God will, “give food in due season.”

Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And it was on the day of Pentecost that the promise of God was fulfilled for those disciples in Jerusalem many seasons ago, and Jesus’ church was birthed. Those disciples were gathered behind closed doors, doors locked out of fear. And Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace… peace be with you.”

For the church in America, where on any given Sunday thousands of disciples gather behind closed doors, seeking to address our fears through rituals and traditions – do we have the peace which Jesus offers? The true Pentecost peace which gives life to the church?

The prophet Bob Marley once said, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally, and permanently, discredited and abandoned – everywhere is war…”

We cannot partake of the life giving breath, the Pentecost peace which Jesus offers, because here in America…there is war.

A Season Long Overdue

America has come through many a season in its history, and it has pulled the church along with it kicking and screaming.

Along with this current season of election, we now find ourselves in a season of sexual revolution. Same-sex marriages are legal in the church and in the courts. We look at our young people and we see the push for gender sensitive rest rooms in public schools. As the prophets of Madison Avenue would have us to consider, “We’ve come a long way, baby…”

Yet, “…we are not saved…”

There is a season long overdue in this nation. It is the season of forgiveness.

For John, Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is intimately liked with forgiveness. As soon as he breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples, he says to them,“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I’ve recently been in touch with an old friend named Jim Wallis, trying to arrange for Jim to spend some quality time with anyone from the Presbytery of Detroit who would like to share in a conversation with him. Jim is recognized as a Christian writer and activist,  founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. He’s written a number of books; the latest is called America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

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To this date, the philosophy of white privilege, of white supremacy, has not been discredited nor abandoned. Until the church of America in general – and the Presbyterian Church in particular – can come to grips with the season at hand, with the need for true confession, we will be like those disciples found in John’s Pentecost story: gathered in our houses of worship behind closed doors.
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Jim Wallis was referenced by Bryan Smith, pastor of Canton Geneva Presbyterian Church, at this past meeting of the Presbytery of Detroit during his sermon message. Bryan spoke of his own spiritual journey that led him and the community of believers at Canton Geneva to examine the phenomenon of white privilege and its sinful manifestations within the body of Christ, the church in general, and particularly within the context of their existence in Canton.

Wallis America's Original SinA number of Calvary elders were present to hear his message, and it can be accessed through the Presbytery of Detroit website. Many of us are still basking in the glow of his prophetic commentary. And we are convicted. Because for us, as members of this segment of the Christian diaspora, and for the nation which now has the Wallis proclamation to further unmask its sin nation, we find ourselves stumbling into a season long overdue.

The season of forgiveness.

But in order for there to be true forgiveness, there must first be confession. America must confess its complicity in the sin of white privilege and racism. Jacqueline Battalora, in her book titled Birth of a White Nation, argues that “the group of humanity called ‘white’ people is the product of tremendous human effort…the invention affords psychological and material values to ‘whites’ while dehumanizing and degrading the other…” (p. xxii).

To this date in America’s history, this philosophy of white privilege, of white supremacy, has not been discredited nor abandoned. And until the church of America in general – and the Presbyterian Church in particular – can come to grips with the season at hand, with the need for true confession, we will be like those disciples found in John’s Pentecost story: gathered in our houses of worship behind closed doors, going through the motions of rituals and traditions that continue to “fall short of the glory of God.”

Food In Due Season

So here we are on Pentecost Sunday, in this season of our nation. The narrative John provides for the Day of Pentecost is extremely pertinent for us today in America. And it is especially pertinent for those of us preparing to go to Portland next month for the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

A banner interpreting the Confession of 1967
A banner interpreting the Confession of 1967

The last time a Presbyterian General Assembly met in Portland, it adopted the Confession of 1967. Steeped in the racial injustices of the 1960s, situated squarely within the season of the Civil Rights movement in which our was embroiled, the Church produced this confession. But sadly, it too fell “short of the glory of God…”

In this lofty confession, the ideals of God’s Work of Reconciliation, The Ministry of Reconciliation, and The Fulfillment of Reconciliation are all lauded. But nowhere is there a true confession. No where in this document does white America confess its sin, its racism…the original sin of our nation.

And without confession there cannot be forgiveness. It’s all there in the order of our liturgies. The assurance of God’s forgiveness follows the confession of sin. Not the other way around.

The church in America is long overdue for a Pentecost moment. It’s winter in America: “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

So just as Jesus did then, I pray Jesus will do once more. I pray that our Lord will break into the closed doors of worship houses across this nation and breathe upon us the breath that gives life. The breath that baptized those first disciples in in the Holy Spirit and renewed them for the work ahead – and that God promises will do so for us, too.

To paraphrase the words of an ancient hymn: “Breathe on [the church of America], breath of God. Fill [her] with life anew. That [she] may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”

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AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Kevin Johnson was born and raised in Washington, DC. He holds an MDiv from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. Kevin is a former member of Sojourners Community and a prison and hospital chaplain. He currently serves as the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit, MI, where he has been since 1994.

Read more articles in this issue “A Year for Confessions: Issues of Social Justice Coming before the 222nd General Assembly.”

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